The only consistent thing about Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) accusations that former presidents Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) and Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) were “extremists” who opposed all things Chinese, is how inconsistent, and at times contradictory, those attacks have been.
President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), administration officials, as well as the media, have repeated ad nauseam the refrain that cross-strait ties “suffered” under Lee and Chen because of their stance on Taiwanese sovereignty. More than once, those officials have also claimed that Taiwan’s economy was weakened during their tenure as a direct result of their supposedly “anti-China” policies.
It is curious, then, that when facing accusations that Taiwan under Ma has become too reliant on China for its economic well-being, those same officials tend to play down the matter by pointing to the rapid pace of increasing cross-strait economic ties during the very same presidencies of Lee and Chen.
Just last week, Representative to Japan John Feng (馮寄台), one of Ma’s closest confidantes, rebutted claims by Japanese media that Ma’s policies had put Taiwan in a position of dangerous reliance on China.
Using data to support his position, Feng said that although Lee had proposed limited ties with China, Taiwan’s trade with China reached 23.79 percent of the total value of the nation’s foreign trade in 2000. That percentage grew to 40.7 percent in 2007 under Chen, he said, pointing out that this figure had only grown slightly to 41.8 percent last year.
Fair enough, numbers don’t lie. It follows, though, that the Ma administration and the media should cease their claims that Ma’s predecessors were extremists who would go out of their way to alienate Beijing. Surely, if the twain had been such hardliners on China, Taiwan’s economy would not have become as reliant on China as it did under Lee and Chen.
The two propositions — that they were “anti” China or too “pro” China — cannot both be right. That is, unless a decision has been made by the KMT and the large body of domestic and foreign media that are biased in Ma’s favor that Lee and Chen could do no good, in which case it is possible to attack the former leaders from both sides simultaneously, as if there were no contradiction in doing so.
Or it could be that Lee and Chen were far more pragmatic than their critics would admit and realized well before Ma became president that it would be impossible for Taiwan — even an independent Taiwan — to ignore the giant Chinese market. Self-interested though this may have been (and can we really blame presidents for putting national interest first?), Lee and Chen laid the groundwork that made it possible for Ma to push cross-strait relations to the next level.
It is also possible that these two “extremists” were aware that close economic engagement with China required a precarious balancing act and called for great caution to ensure that growing ties did not turn into a Trojan horse. It was possible, in their view, to be both an economic partner of China while remaining at odds over politics.
There the pith lies: China’s share of Taiwan’s total external trade may have increased by only 1.1 percent since 2007, but the context in which that trade relationship occurred is markedly different. Whereas caution characterized Lee and Chen’s approach to cross-strait ties, Ma’s has been much more permissive and subject to political manipulation by Beijing.
One last bit of data for Feng: Taiwan’s trade surplus with China in the first half of this year dropped 6.1 percent year-on-year. Prior to the global economic downturn of 2008, Taiwan’s trade surplus with its neighbor had only declined twice — during the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997 to 1998, and in 2001, when the dot com bubble burst.
Since Ma came into office, Taiwan’s trade surplus with China has contracted for three of the past four years.
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